The Morality of Intervention


The civil war in Sudan has claimed more than 50,000 lives in Darfur, while a million more have been driven from their homes, caught in the crossfire of the bloody conflict between the Sudanese government and ethnic minority rebels.

The need for immediate action is clear. But because of the Iraq War, it may never be taken.

Under pressure from human rights groups, both Britain and the United States have joined Kofi Annan in proposing a UN resolution that calls for economic sanctions and travel restrictions. It is an exercise in futility – the kind that paved the way for widespread massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica. What is urgently needed now is a credible threat of a military intervention, which was all that was required to preempt genocide in the past.

The sad truth is that the lack of action on Sudan is in no small part a result of George Bush and Tony Blair's not-so-excellent adventures in desert. A study published on Wednesday by the Foreign Policy Center, a British think-tank, unequivocally laid the blame for the unfolding genocide on the Iraq war. The report criticizes Britain and the United States for backing "quiet diplomacy, " a response it characterizes as "utterly inappropriate." Its author Greg Austin told The Independent, "The commitment of the U.S. and the U.K. in Iraq and the use of military force in Iraq pushed them away from considering any sort of military option."

The invasion of Iraq also diminished the prospects for an international consensus for action in Sudan, and too vigorous a push by the U.S. will achieve little except to stiffen resistance. Fears of blurring the line between humanitarian intervention and moral crusade seem all the more pressing because of the Bush/Blair war machine, which has done its best to sell the one as the other.

While Britain and Australia have both expressed readiness to commit troops, it is almost impossible for Muslim nations in the Security Council such as Algeria and Pakistan to agree to U.S. led action against an Arab League member like Sudan. The Arab world's tolerance for the atrocities committed by their rulers is indeed a cause for despair. But the occupation of Iraq, including the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the U.S.'s total support for Ariel Sharon, and the xenophobic anti-Muslim and anti-Arab outbursts in the United States, make that stone harder to cast.

In the case of Sudan, in particular, there is also Bill Clinton's botched destruction of the pharmaceuticals factory that demonstrated, long before 9/11 and the missing WMD, that military intelligence is often an oxymoron. And some of the organizations in the U.S. pushing for action would not be as zealous in the case of Sudan if it did not entail taking action against "Arabs."

It is therefore hardly surprising that many governments and their people across the world are willing to cut some slack for any Arab regime in the face of American "concern." And even if they were to accept the need for intervention of some kind in Sudan, why would they entrust George Bush with such a task?

While those who oppose the Bush administration's call for action are right to doubt Washington's intentions, there is no shortage of countries that are just eager to support a rogue state for reasons of shortsighted or expedient "national interest." The fact that some of the members opposing action against Sudan are the same as those who opposed the war in Iraq is hardly a cause for reassurance.

France, for example, was the patron of the former Rwandan regime, the protector almost up to last moment of the Serbian ethnic cleansers in Bosnia, the defender of Morocco's occupation and repression in Western Sahara. And even if French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin did make an excellent case against attacking Iraq, his government was previously a staunch defender of its oil interests in Iraq.

In any case, there is little evidence that the Bush administration has any serious intention of swooping down in full force and rescuing the Sudanese. The draft submitted by the U.S. is clearly a token Security Council resolution – one that oddly mandates travel restrictions against a motley paramilitary band of Sudanese brigands and militia (who are unlikely to have many cosmopolitan world travelers in their ranks). It appears to be a gesture designed to cover the administration's backside against the "If Iraq, why not Sudan" argument that is denting its already shredded credibility.

The wrangling in the Security Council is in reality a battle of expediency, with both sides pursuing their narrow interests. It also sadly makes it almost inconceivable that the Security Council or the General Assembly will authorize the robust military operation necessary to help people of Sudan.

Yet, we can be assured that polemicists on both left and right will try to polarize this serious and complicated issue into a binary, for or against, debate. When it comes to flexing military muscle, George W. Bush, the bring-'em-on president, is clearly not a man who favors nuance or subtlety. But then neither do many of the pontificating pundits in the media.

Such partisan wrangling will inevitably obscure any meaningful discussion of what can be done to alleviate the misery of Sudanese people. Here's an example of this kind of false logic that passes for debate on television: You approved intervention in Kosovo, so you must have supported the war in Vietnam and so how can you oppose intervention in Iraq?

Being "for" or "against" intervention in the abstract is, frankly, silly. It is like being for or against amputation, a gruesome medical procedure with tragic consequences that still is sometimes necessary. You can oppose the chopping off hands of thieves in, say, Saudi Arabia, be skeptical about drastic procedures that do more for profits than patients, but still be all in favor of cutting of a limb to save the body – all the while subscribing to the Hippocratic principle, "Above all do no harm."

The concept of "humanitarian intervention," however, has a long and checkered history. Nazi Germany, for example, invoked it to justify their invasion of Czechoslovakia. It was to prevent such blatant misuse that the Canadian-convened international commission on the "Responsibility to Protect" in 2000 suggested a set of precautionary principles:

Right intention, or that there should not be any hidden agenda; Last resort, i.e. all other means have been tried; Proportional means, i.e. you do not destroy the village to save it, Reasonable prospects; i.e. you have a clear plan and are not just bombing people indiscriminately to make a point; Right Authority, i.e. you possess U.N. authorization.
A military intervention guided by these principles represent the last, best hope for Sudan. While the United Nations itself is not designed to conduct robust operations that could involve serious fighting, which is why it often "franchises" them. Ideally, the Arab League should act, but they will not. The African Union has made a start, but it is hopelessly under-resourced, and similar regional operations in Sierra Leone and Liberia were highly limited successes.

The answer is not, however, the United States. This is a matter on which the EU should be given the blue-flag franchise, especially Germany whose clean record on Iraq makes it ideal for the job. Britain and the U.S. should stay in the background, at best offering logistics and funding and the most discreet diplomatic support.

Just because the Iraq War failed the test for a "just war" on all counts, it should not be a reason to abandon the principles that still represent the best assurance of morality in an ambiguous world. While military intervention represents a genuine moral quandary, it is surely wrong to sacrifice human lives so we can congratulate ourselves for our ethical stance.

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